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Fresh talks between political leaders in bid to restore power-sharing at Stormont

The executive dissolved in January 2017.

Image: Niall Carson/PA Images

TALKS BETWEEN POLITICAL parties in Northern Ireland have commenced to explore the restoration of power-sharing at Stormont. 

Political leaders agreed last month to commence fresh talks around the political deadlock at Stormont with Karen Bradley, Northern Ireland’s secretary of state, and Tánaiste Simon Coveney setting out an approach. 

The executive dissolved in January 2017 after the power-sharing agreement between the DUP and Sinn Fein collapsed over the Renewable Heat Incentive controversy.

Last month, leaders from across the political divide, including DUP leader Arlene Foster and Sinn Féin leader MaryLou McDonald, sat side-by-side at St Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast, at the funeral of murdered journalist Lyra McKee, whose death during riots involving dissident republicans in Derry sparked calls for fresh talks around power-sharing. 

In a statement today, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said today’s discussions “will be short and they will be focused on the key issues that are central to restoring the institutions, with the aim of achieving rapid progress.”

The five main political parties will nominate three representatives to working groups – tasked with examining five key areas. 

These include: 

  • Discussions around a Programme for Government, led by the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, David Sterling. 
  • Transparency, accountability and the operation of the Executive, led by the Permanent Secretary of the Northern Ireland Department of Finance, Sue Gray. 
  • Reform of the petition of concern led by Hugh Widdis, Departmental Solicitor and former Assembly Legal Counsel.
  • Discussions around rights, language and identity issues, led by former Permanent Secretary of the Northern Ireland Department of Culture, Paul Sweeney.
  • Improving the sustainability, stability and operation of Good Friday Agreement institutions, led by former Head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, Malcolm McKibbin.

‘A fair and balanced deal’

In addition to discussing a Programme for Government, as well the divisions between political parties, “all of the restored institutions need to operate in ways that are credible, inclusive and sustainable,” the department has said.

The process of these roundtable discussions between political leaders and working groups will be reviewed by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and British Prime Minister Theresa May at the end of the month. 

Coveney said that previous talks around the restoration of power-sharing – dominated by the two biggest parties – was a “frustrating process the last time” and that the Ulster Unionionist party, the SDLP and the Alliance would be central to the new round of talks.

Speaking last month, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald repeated previous comments that “credible and sustainable institutions based on equality, respect and genuine partnership government” were central to the talks. 

“These talks will be a test of whether the British government and the DUP are finally willing to resolve the issues of equality, rights and integrity in government, which caused the collapse of the power-sharing institutions two years ago,” she said. 

DUP leader Arlene Foster said her party “would not be found wanting in any talks process” but that the assembly should be restored first of all, and talks to run “parallel” to this. 

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